Supersize my airbag, please?

Crash test ratings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) mean the world to car companies. Advertising a five-star safety rating or a “Safest Car In Its Class” tagline can equal huge sales, so automakers and safety agencies typically spend over $8 million annually on numerous crash tests, all to see how each car stacks up and what improvements might be possible. One key component of these tests: crash test dummies.

Today, dummies are created to reflect all sexes and ages, in an effort to best predict the effects of a crash on any given person. The Hybrid III crash test dummies are used in both the United States and Europe for all frontal crash testing. The original Hybrid III model represents the average man, or the “50th-percentile male.” Standing 5 feet 9 inches tall, he weighs 170 pounds. There is also a standard adult female dummy, child dummies of varying ages, and a larger male dummy (the “95th-percentile male”), measuring 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 223 pounds.

While the information collected from the use of the Hybrid III dummies is obviously important and of value to the industry, it is also lacking.  Why?  Because it is based on the use of dummies which represent the “average” man and woman of decades past, not the present.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average male weighs almost 195 pounds, and the 95th-percentile male weighs over 270 pounds.

The CDC also reports that over one-third of adults in the United States are obese and another third are overweight, though not obese. The trend is obvious. With the “Average American’s”  weight ballooning so rapidly, the crash test dummies currently being used are not accurately reflecting the drivers and passengers on the road today.

A recent study found that obesity increases both a person’s risk of getting into an accident and sustaining serious injuries from an accident. Researchers believe that poor car-to-person fit is the leading cause of accidents and injuries or death from accidents for those who are overweight or obese. If a person’s body structure varies from the body structure used during crash testing, the safety features of the vehicle (seat belts, airbags, etc.) may not function properly for that person. As a result, researchers are pushing for automakers to design vehicles with adjustable safety features in order to ensure the optimum protection of all people, regardless of their size.